When people think of Cusco, Peru, it may only be as an intermediate stop between their arrival in Peru and their ultimate goal of seeing Machu Picchu. That’s a bit how I thought of it, too, until I visited. Thinking of it solely as a supply stop or a transportation interchange would be a mistake. Cusco’s got great culture and food and is worth taking a couple days to explore! So here are just a few reasons to visit Cusco!
About the City
Cusco, also spelled Cuzco and alternatively Qosqo, or Qusqu, is considered one of the oldest existing cities in South America. The Spanish spelling of the name generally uses an “s” while the English version is generally spelled with a “z”. The other two spellings are in Quechua, the language of the Inca, and the name Cusco derives from the Quecha word meaning “navel” or “center of the universe”. I’m going to use Cusco….just because.
Cusco is located in southeastern Peru, near the Urubamba Valley in the Andes. It’s the capital not only of Cusco Region, but also of Cusco Province. It covers slightly less than 150 square miles and has a population of about 435,000. Located at around 11,200 feet, the air in Cusco is thin, so for those of us who live closer to sea level, it takes some getting used to. It was the historic capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th until the 16th century when the Spanish entered the picture. In 1983, UNESCO declared Cusco a World Heritage Site. Most of the major sights are located at or very close to the Plaza de Armas, which makes for a city that’s really easy to get around.
1. Cathedrals and Culture
The Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption, Cusco, also known as the Cusco Cathedral, was completed in 1654, about a hundred years after construction began. It was built on the site where the Incas built the palace of Viracocha, known as Kiswarkancha Temple, on the main square in Cusco. A lot of the art in the cathedral is from the Cusco School of Roman Catholic Art, built by the Spanish to educate the Inca on European the renaissance style of art, and the Quechua, referring both to the indigenous people of South America as well as to the language, were limited to painting themes of only European or Catholic importance.
San Sebastian Church
Sadly, this church burned to the ground in September 2016. While the source of the fire is unknown, it destroyed priceless works of from the Cusco School of Roman Catholic Art, including the church's altar of gold-gilded cedar wood.
The Koricancha (or Coricancha)
Originally named Inti Kancha or Inti Wasi (Quechua for "sun house"), it was dedicated to Inti, the ancient Incan sun god. It’s smack in the middle of Cusco. It was mostly destroyed after the 16th century war with the Spanish conquistadors and what remained formed the foundation of the Santo Domingo church and convent.
The Archaeological Museum of Cusco
It’s located in an old colonial house built by the Spanish Admiral Francisco Alderete Maldonado at the beginning of 17th century. For this reason, it's also called the Admiral's House. It now belongs to the Universidad Nacional San Antonio Abad and tells the history of Cusco from the perspective of the Inca.
2. It’s Compact
Like I mentioned above, just about everything you want to see is at or close to the Plaza de Armas. For a city the size of Cusco, the city center it’s really walkable - if you can handle the altitude. If you take your time moving about, you should be fine.
3. It IS a great place to pick supplies…. and other cool stuff
There’s really great shopping in Cusco from a souvenir standpoint. You can get everything from tee shirts to alpaca sweaters. And while I’m not really a shopper, I love going to grocery stores when I visit other places. It’s fun to see what’s the same or different than at home. I’ve also found that the grocery store is a great place to pick up cool souvenirs. One of my scores was pink salt from the salt mines of Maras, located about 40 km north of Cusco. The salt, known as the Inca’s Tears, is harvested from the pools at Qoripujio spring. The salt pools here were built roughly between AD 200 and AD 900 – that’s pre-Inca! The pink color of the salt allegedly comes from the water passing through an area containing rose quartz. Cool! For gifts, I bought salt packaged up in bags with Inca style patterns on them. Sure, you can get pink Maras salt in the U.S., but I bet it doesn’t come in those fantastic bags! Of course, I also bought some for me -in a salt grinder!
And don’t forget the San Pedro Market. It’s a few minutes’ walk from the Plaza de Armas. It’s a bustling covered street market that’s totally worth visiting. You probably don’t need all morning at the market unless you intend to do some serious buying and haggling, but it’s still interesting to see. They have everything from souvenirs, to food, to herbal remedies for anything you can possibly think of….really.
4. Great Restaurants
I was a pleasantly surprised at the variety and the quality of the food in Cusco. While there is plenty to eat for meat lovers, as a vegetarian, I certainly didn’t starve! In particular, Cusco Restaurants, (here’ the link, but it’s all in Spanish ) a group of seven restaurants in Cusco (but not a chain). We ate at two – Greens, a casual eatery specializing in organic dishes; and Incanto, serving a largely Italian cuisine. Both meals were amazing. At Greens, I had quinoa ravioli and my husband had alpaca medallions. At Incanto, I had yellow potato gnocchi and hubby had pappardelle with Bolognese sauce.
Good to know: Peru is big on potatoes (there are allegedly 3800 different kinds!), quinoa, alpaca and ceviche!
5. The views are incredible!
You’re in a city in the middle of the mountains. Of course the views are spectacular!
If you go...
Here are a few tips on surviving the altitude that worked for me. These might not work for you, so take these suggestions with a grain of pink salt!
Bottoms up… with water that is!
The air is really dry in Cusco so drinking as much water as you can stand is key to staying hydrated. I was on an organized tour in Cusco and people were drinking alcohol and coffee – two things that are known to dehydrate – but not a lot of water.
It’s a marathon, it’s not a race.
What I mean is don’t run around trying to see everything. If you’re a sea level kinda guy or gal, you won’t be able to do it any because the air is thin and you'll be out of breath. Take your time.
It’s all in your head.
I had a slight headache from the altitude the whole time I was in Cusco. In addition to drinking a lot of water and no alcohol, I ate a ton of coca candy (in giant bowls at our hotel) and drank gallons of coca tea. I don’t know if the coca really helped, but I thought it did, and that may have been the placebo I needed.
Get some air.
If you need it, hotels generally have oxygen available.
Have you been to Cusco? Let me know on Facebook!